The Valentine Phantom
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Each year, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, someone scatters red hearts through downtown Montpelier, Vt.

When they first appeared, in 2002, they were simple photocopies, but by 2006 large banners were gracing the State House columns. Soon the decorations spread to the high school’s chimney and a tower at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“Currently, there are no leads and no suspects,” joked police chief Dave Janawicz in 2007, when 14 inches of snow failed to stop the bandit. “But the investigation continues.”

Vermont’s capital is not alone in this — for years, the same thing has been happening in Portland, Maine, and in Boulder, Colo. No one knows who does it or why.

A similar phantom visits the grave of Edgar Allan Poe each year on the poet’s birthday.

The Half-Bastard

According to mathematician Eugene Northrop, in England between 1907 and 1921 it was legal for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife, but illegal for a woman to marry the brother of her deceased husband.

Suppose then that twin brothers marry twin sisters. One husband and the opposite wife die, and after a decent interval the surviving woman and man marry. For the man this marriage is legal; for the woman it’s illegal. Thus, if they have a son, he’s legitimate for one parent and illegitimate for the other.

See Proof That a Man Can Be His Own Grandfather.

Rule of Paw
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Canadian cats have their own parliament. In the same precinct of Ottawa where the human legislature meets, Irène Desormeaux erected a feline equivalent in the 1970s. The cats are all spayed or neutered, they get free inoculations and medical care, and the whole thing is run by volunteers using personal donations.

The Happiest Place on Earth

Yes, it’s The Rescuers, and yes, that’s a topless woman in the window.

Disney discovered her in two frames of the film’s 1999 home video release, but apparently she’d been there since the film’s premiere in 1977.

The studio recalled 3.4 million videotapes and released a cleaned-up version two months later. If they know who did it, they’re not saying.

Time Is Money

Claude Sanguin, a French poet, who died at the close of the last century, having had his house consumed by lightning, sent the following ingenious card to Louis XIV on the occasion. The monarch at once felt the delicacy of the poet’s verses, and the distress of his situation, and cheerfully ordered him the one thousand crowns which were the object of his demand.

To engage in your matters belongs not to me,
This, Sire, inexcusable freedom would be;
But yet, when reviewing my miseries past,
Of your majesty’s income the total I cast;
All counted, (I’ve still the remembrance quite clear,)
Your revenue’s one hundred millions a year;
Hence one hundred thousand per day in your pow’r,
Divided, brings four thousand crowns to each hour,
To answer the calls of my present distress,
Which lightning has caused in my country recess,
May I be allow’d to request, noble Sire,
Of your time fifteen minutes, before I expire?

— I.J. Reeve, The Wild Garland; or, Curiosities of Poetry, 1866

Pan King

Excerpts from the reviews of James William Davison, music editor of the London Times from 1846 to 1878:

  • “Perhaps a more overrated man never existed than this same Schubert.”
  • “[Schumann is] the very opposite of good.”
  • “We should rather be inclined to class [Berlioz] a daring lunatic than as a sound, healthy musician.”
  • “Never was a writer of operas so destitute of real invention, so destitute in power or so wanting in the musician’s skill [as Verdi].”
  • “The entire works of Chopin present a motley surface of ranting hyperbole and excruciating cacophony.”
  • “[Wagner] is such queer stuff that criticism would be thrown away upon it.”
  • “He who imagines that, at any time within the last half century Franz Liszt was a musical composer must entertain either very odd notions of art or must be, qua music, an absolute ignoramus.”

But: “[William Sterndale Bennett] lives with us in his works. The music he created conquered, in some sense, the power of death.”

The Value of a Dollar

You might have had trouble making change in postwar Hungary — the national currency, the pengo, was plunging so quickly in value that prices doubled every 15 hours.

To simplify calculations, the government eventually introduced a banknote worth 100 quintillion pengo. It was worth 20 American cents.

Things only got worse. By July 1946, the monthly inflation rate had reached 41,900,000,000,000,000 percent, and, unbelievably, the combined value of all Hungarian banknotes equaled one-thousandth of a U.S. dollar.

In desperation the government gave up and introduced a new currency, the forint. In the end you could get 1 new forint by trading in 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (400 octillion) pengo.

That’s the all-time record for hyperinflation — but modern Zimbabwe is not far behind. In fact, because Hungary couldn’t fit all 20 zeroes on that banknote, the 2006 Zimbabwean bill below holds the record for depicted zeroes on a national currency.$100_trillion_2009_Obverse.jpg

Crossing the Line,_USS_Blue_Ridge_(LCC_19)_on_16_May_2008.JPG

In the navy, you’re not a true sailor until you’ve crossed the equator. So whenever a ship makes the crossing, it holds a ceremony in which a sailor representing “King Neptune” challenges “pollywogs” for invading his domain, and there follow two days of general hazing from which the newbies emerge “shellbacks.”

In the centuries since this started, there has emerged a kind of graduate school of advanced crossings. Cross the equator at the international date line and you become a golden shellback; cross it at the prime meridian, near West Africa, and you’re an emerald shellback.

This becomes an exercise in spherical geometry. Presumably a member of the Order of Magellan (a sailor who has circled the globe) automatically joins the Order of the Golden Dragon (for crossing the international date line) unless he’s also joined the Orders of the Blue Nose and the Red Nose (for crossing the Arctic and Antarctic Circles). There must be a chart somewhere.

Numbers Game

On June 18, 1964, an elderly woman was walking through a Los Angeles alley when a blond woman with a ponytail pushed her to the ground and stole her purse. The blond woman escaped in a yellow car driven by a bearded black man.

Police arrested Janet Collins, a ponytailed blond woman whose bearded black husband drove a yellow Lincoln. At trial, a local mathematics instructor testified that there was 1 chance in 12 million that another couple would meet this description, and the jury convicted the Collinses of second-degree robbery. Sound reasonable?

Well, no. The California Supreme Court reversed the conviction, noting that the prosecution had offered no statistical evidence and that the mathematician had simply invented estimates for each of the six factors and multiplied them together, without adjusting for dependence or the possibility of mistake.

“The testimony as to mathematical probability infected the case with fatal error and distorted the jury’s traditional role of determining guilt or innocence according to long-settled rules,” wrote justice Raymond Sullivan. “Mathematics, a veritable sorcerer in our computerized society, while assisting the trier of fact in the search for truth, must not cast a spell over him.”